Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the scouting movement, became a national hero following his exploits at the siege of Mafeking during the second Boer War. Tony Hayward, chief executive of British Petroleum, is unlikely to receive the Order of Merit for his exploits during the siege of Capitol Hill during the US Congressional Committee hearings into the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
One congressman signalled his intention to “slice and dice” the Birmingham University geology graduate and most of the press talked of the “grilling” of the unfortunate CEO. Grilled he was, basted liberally with gulf crude and served on a bed of Louisiana crawfish and shrimp marinaded in 200 million gallons of black gold. Hayward did himself no favours by refusing to answer questions regarding safety procedures on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and by settling into a siege mentality as to responsibility for the calamity. Irritation felt by the congressmen and women soon turned to anger and then to scorn and the admission by the big boss that he had never heard of the rig until after it blew up killing 11 people dropped him further into the gumbo.
Congress, the American press and the American public are baying for blood and Haywood is in the frame. Here at home the reaction has been, at best, more sanguine but, at worst, a re-run of the American War of independence. It seems that BP is a very important company in terms of the British economy and so Texan refinery explosions, leaking pipelines in Alaska and illegal price fixing in the propane market are all part of the pioneering enterprise of commerce and are beyond criticism. Indeed the usually demure Daily Telegraph recently sprang to the defence of BP and led with a lurid headline describing Obama`s boot on the throat of British pensioners; a reference to the serial polluter and uber carbon producer as being the investment of choice for discerning British pension funds.
BP are clearly guilty of massive contraventions of safety legislation in a very dangerous industry as well as complacency, incompetence and arrogance in its desire to put profit before safety, the environment and global public outrage. Even given the fact that Tony Haywood sold one third of his considerable BP shareholding at massive personal financial gain and a reduction in dividend to pension funds just one month before the flambé of Deepwater Horizon, it is possible to feel some sympathy for him.
Sitting in the bear pit of a congressional hearing more reminiscent of the Jerry Springer Show rather than the genteel surroundings of something like the Chilcot Inquiry, Haywood might be forgiven for asking: “why me?”. BP is 39% American owned and the rig was being operated by American companies including the infamous Halliburton, former vice-president Dick Cheney`s own personal pension fund, and flew a Marshall Islands flag of convenience. The irony of being shouted at by American politicians that owe their positions of power and, in some cases, comfortable livelihoods to the patronage of the massive oil industry lobby will not be lost on Tony Haywood.
The fire-storm and public floggings that BP must now endure might be justified, but the reason for the humiliation is because the black, sticky stuff is washing up on the bayous and not somewhere else. The Niger Delta is a long way from the Mississippi, but Nigeria suffers oil spills on the scale of Deepwater Horizon every single year. Thousands of the poorest people in the world die as a result of flash fires from leaking pipelines run on the surface through their villages and as a direct result of poisoning brought about by oil company pollution. The compensation and reparation demanded by the American government is not available to the dispossessed of Africa and elsewhere.
Haywood might also be wondering why Warren Anderson, former CEO of Union Carbide, has not been invited to sit on the naughty step. In 1984, an American owed chemical plant in Bhopal leaked poison gas and killed 15,000 people. Anderson knew his plants were unsafe but only authorised remedial work on plants within US borders, the Bhopal plant safety being seen as an expensive extravagance. The Indian government issued an arrest warrant but big, brave Anderson legged it back to the states and has been there ever since with his own government refusing extradition back to India to face the music. The day before Haywood sat in the hot seat, seven minor Union Carbide managers were finally convicted of causing death by negligence and sentenced to two years imprisonment and fined $2,000.
When the Exxon Valdez hit a reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska in 1989, the oil company quickly circulated a rumour that the master of the supertanker was blind drunk and that the environmental disaster was his fault, not theirs. However, the subsequent inquiry discovered that the ship did not have sufficient crew, the captain was sober but suffering from exhaustion and the Sonar system that would have identified the dangerous reef had not been working throughout the previous year as Exxon considered it too expensive to repair. Even now, Exxon continue to successfully block claims for compensation, helped by their friends in Congress, the Senate and the Supreme Court.
Closer to home, without even thinking about the reaction if an American company operating in the North Sea ruined the beautiful beaches of Northumberland, it is not only BP who allows greed to come before safety. British oil industry companies involved in the Buncefield explosion and fire in 2005, as well as Total and Texaco, have just been found guilty of negligence and face massive fines. It is considered a miracle that there were no deaths in the biggest explosion in Europe since World War Two which actually registered 2.4 on the Richter Scale. There are many who are happy to feed America’s addiction to oil and the addiction of oil companies to profitability. The US remains the biggest user and the biggest polluter and both addict and pushers have gone beyond just stealing to pay for the habit; they now resort to murder.
Henry Waxman, chair of the congressional committee inquiry into Deepwater Horizon needs to be very careful when dealing with major oil companies, they pack a powerful punch. When activists objected to the conduct of oil companies in Nigeria, Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other campaigners from the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People were executed by the state on trumped-up charges of incitement to murder. It was later revealed that Shell had threatened, bribed and invented witnesses to testify against the men who had dared to question the authority of the oil company. Let us hope that Congressman Waxman remembers history.
The other BP, Baden-Powell, was sent to South Africa in 1896 to quell a rebellion during the Second Matabele War when the locals objected to the British South Africa Company nicking their land for mineral deposits. BP saw the natives off after ordering the execution by firing squad of a Matabele chief who refused to co-operate.
BP then went Scouting for Boys.